"The consumer, after five years on a tablet and five years on an iPhone, is just sick of being told, 'you can't do that," said Brandon Dobell, a partner at William Blair & Co., an investment bank and research firm based in Chicago. "I can do everything else on my phone, my tablet. Why can't I learn as well?"
We've been here before. Every new technology promises to transform education.
In the 18th century, the U.S. Postal Service brought correspondence courses. In the 1930s, the big radio networks talked about turning the airwaves into a university for the masses. The Open University, launched in Great Britain in 1971, promised much the same for television. The Internet produced online learning, now 20-plus years old.
All those technologies had some effect. But traditional universities are still around — dominant and expensive. Technology didn't solve the scale problem: One teacher can lecture millions of students online. But truly "teach" them, with personal feedback and interaction?
"There's an endless faith in education in technology," said John Meyer, a Stanford University sociologist of education, and skeptic of the latest trends. "Right now, there's a kind of binge of belief that the Internet will solve the problem."
The arrival of MOOCs, however, in little more than a year, has many believing this time is different.
At his desk at a telecom company in central Lagos, the Nigerian capital, Ugochukwu Nehemiah used to take his full one-hour lunch break. Now, he quickly devours his meal, then watches his downloaded MOOCs. He's already finished courses in business, energy and sustainability, and (ironically) disruptive innovation, taught by institutions like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Maryland.
Nehemiah needs a master's to advance at work, but cannot afford the United Kingdom program where he's been admitted. The MOOC learning doesn't translate into a widely recognized credential. But the teaching is free, not available locally, and helps him even without a credential.
"It's a form of self-development," said Nehemiah, a father of two. "The way I would speak when I have meetings to attend," he added, "would be much different than the way I had spoken if I had not taken this course."
Some MOOCs are only a modest step up from glorified lecture videos. But the star power of famous professors has helped make them hugely popular.
When nonprofit edX offered its first MOOC in "Circuits and Electronics" last spring, 154,000 students from more than 160 countries signed up (though only 8,000 lasted to the final). Now edX has 900,000 students and more than 30 courses. For-profit rival Coursera has 4.1 million students, 406 courses and 83 partner institutions.
The MOOCs, though, are just one part of this new landscape.
Sal Khan, a charismatic former hedge-fund adviser, discovered his knack for explaining things while tutoring his young cousins in algebra in 2004. In 2006, he uploaded his first YouTube video and two years later founded Khan Academy. (One of the formerly struggling cousins just got into MIT).
Today, Mountain View, Calif.-based Khan has more students than all the MOOCs combined : Six million unique users a month from 216 countries watch one or more of than 4,000 videos available on Khan Academy's website. These are not full courses, but connected series of free, bite-sized lessons — about 10 minutes each — taught by Khan and others in everything from math to art history.
You can watch in 28 languages, from Spanish to Farsi, Bengali and Portuguese.
The appeal of such technologies is obvious: getting great teachers in front of more — millions more — students.
Yet Khan talks excitedly not just of shaking up education across distance, but time. He says students can learn what they need, when they need it, without having to take and pay for an entire course.
"Whether we're talking basic literacy or quantum physics, it's the ability to cater to one person's needs," Khan said.
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